Business, Governments and International Trade in Cold War Europe


The project studies government-business relations in the context of the highly politicised commercial relations between communist and capitalist states during the Cold War.

After the Second World War, two competing groups of states emerged in Europe, and this had a crucial impact on the economic relations within the continent. Scholars have analysed East-West trade (as the trade between communist and non-communist countries was called) from rather state- or government-centric perspective. There is an extensive literature on how governments tried to manipulate trade and financial relations for political purposes. Influential countries like the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain and China offered economic aid to their allies, promoted structural changes in other countries when these were considered politically desirable, and used economic tools to put pressure on their opponents as well as too independent-minded allies and neutrals. The members of the Western alliance set up an export control organisation CoCom to limit the flow of strategic materials and technology to communist countries.

Scholars have given relatively little attention to the efforts of companies and other business organisations to promote their commercial interests in this divided world. Neither have they been particularly keen on looking at the impact of government policies on micro level business operations. The companies were naturally eager to defend their interests, because trade with the socialist countries was often profitable. Furthermore, companies usually tend to oppose policies that restrict their freedom of action.

In this project companies are treated as independent actors, not just components of monolithic nation states. We will, in particular look at the activities of British and Finnish companies in the context of East-West trade. The United Kingdom was a leading economic power, whose government was the most influential European member of CoCom. Many British manufacturing companies were eager to sell more goods to communist countries or to buy cheap Soviet energy, while giant oil companies like the British Petroleum and the Royal Dutch Shell tried, in the late 1950s and 1960s, to contain the expansion of Soviet oil exports.

Finland, a small Nordic neutral country, lived under the shadow of the socialist superpower, and was one its most important non-communist trading partners. Finnish companies were eager to benefit from trade with the Soviet Union, but at the same they fought against domestic communists, and tried to strengthen “Western” elements within their home country.

The project aims to combine two fields of scholarship, Business History and the Cold War Studies, which have lived as separate academic entities for decades with surprisingly little interaction. Scholars have analysed the impact of arms races on domestic economies and corporations, and the operations of “military-industrial complexes”, but they have been less interested in how companies tried to promote their interests in the international field. This has been regrettable, because the current international economic system is in many ways a “child” of the Cold War. The project is funded by the University of Helsinki.

Research group: Niklas-Jensen-Eriksen (leader), Maiju Wuokko, Aaro Sahari

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